The Child I Didn’t Adopt

little-boy-and-teddy-bear Image via Shutterstock

It was something about the phrasing that got to me. Something about the cadence of his words, the staccato of his speech.

“Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.”

It is an odd turn of phrase, isn’t it?

Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

He was buckled into the backseat of my Toyota, still too little to sit up front. At seven he had already moved more times than the total number of years he had been on the earth. And this time, like the times before it, he moved with his belongings in a trash bag. A suitcase, at least, would have added a small degree of dignity to the whole affair – to being “placed” in another and another and yet another foster home before reaching the 3rd grade. Trash bags break, you know. Trash bags can’t possibly support the contents of any life, and certainly not a life as fragile as this.

They break from the strain, eventually.

This move was harder for Stephen than most. It was a home he thought he would stay in, at least for awhile. He had felt affection there. When I went to pick him up, after his foster mother gave notice that he could no longer stay, he came easily with me; head down, no reaction on the surface of it. It was only when he got into my car that he began to sob the kind of aching sound that leaves you limp in its wake.

He could barely get out the words. Nobody loves me. Not even my mother who gave birth to me.

Months later, in a repeat scene (another foster mother, another removal), he would put up a fight. He would run around the living room, ducking behind furniture, refusing to leave. But on this night he had no fight in him.

That was Stephen at seven.

Nine-year old Stephen grips his report card in sweaty hands. We’re headed to an adoption event, where we will meet families who want to adopt an older child; families who do not automatically rule out a boy like Stephen with all of his long “history.” And he wants to impress them, these strangers. He wants to win them over, and so he brings his good report card along as tangible proof that he is a child worth loving.

A child should never have to prove they are worth loving.

Twelve-year old Stephen tells me that I’m his best friend. I’m his social worker, and he should have a real best friend, but I don’t say this to him. We’re at a taping for Wednesday’s Child, the news spot featuring children who are up for adoption. Stephen is engaging on camera. Maybe somebody will pick him this time. Maybe he is offering just enough evidence, at twelve, that he’s a boy worth loving. And he is lovable, truly. But it is not enough. A family never comes.

Years later, long after I’ve left the agency, I get an email from my old boss asking how I’m doing, and ending with a short P.S. “Stephen is in DYS lockup after running away from his foster home. You need to adopt him.” My stomach drops. I’ve had this thought many times. I should adopt him myself. But I don’t.

I heard about his murder from a friend who had seen it in the news. Shot outside a party over some foolish dispute. Dead at 18, dead just as he became a man. Not my Stephen, I prayed. When I realized that it was really him – that it could be no other – I sobbed gripped by the kind of anguish that leaves you limp in its wake.

The newspapers ran very little about the murder, as if it were an afterthought. Barely worth a mention, really. Anonymous strangers posted nasty comments online: “Just another gangbanger,” they said. You don’t even know him. You don’t know the first thing about this boy. You don’t know that as a child he would trace letters into my back with his finger to pass time at the doctor’s office, asking me to guess what phrase he was spelling out. “I ♥ U” he traced between my shoulders, the last time we played this game.

Stephen had been wrong, that night in my Toyota. His mother did love him, in her way. She was there, at the funeral. She greeted me kindly. I think she knew I loved Stephen as I knew she did. We both failed him in the end, and that joined us I suppose. Neither of us could give him a family.

There were no photos from Stephen’s childhood at the funeral home. No images of the green-eyed boy with the sweet smile to remind us of what had been lost. There were no pictures of Stephen with his brothers, and so I printed up snapshots of the four boys together, taken on a supervised visit, and brought them to the funeral to give to the family. It was something I could do, against the larger backdrop of nothing I could do.

There were very few social workers at the funeral, and none of Stephen’s many foster mothers. Did they even know he was dead? Stephen spent more of his life being raised in the system than out of it. If you claim legal responsibility for a child, you best show up at his funeral. You should show up when he dies. He was yours, in a way, wasn’t he? You owe it to him. And if he did not belong to you, then who did he ever belong to?

His mother was there, at least. His mother who gave birth to him. I hear the echo of his voice from those many years ago.

Somebody does love you, Stephen. I want to tell him. But it’s too late.

Stephen was the one, for me. The one who embodied all the failures of a system so broken that to heal it would take far more than the casts that heal the literal broken bones of the children growing up within it.

They break, you know. These kids we leave behind. Eventually they break.

November is National Adoption Month. For information on adoption from the foster care system, visit the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

*Stephen is a fictional name for a real boy the world lost.

The 10 Most Ridiculous Things This Adoptive Family Has Heard

happy-kids-dancing Image via Shutterstock

1. “Are you going to tell the kids they are adopted?” You do see that we are white and the kids are black, right? I’m pretty sure if we didn’t tell them they were adopted, they’d figure it out.

2. “Why didn’t her mom want her? I mean, she’s so beautiful.” Our kids being placed for adoption had nothing to do with their looks, and the kids were “wanted” and are loved by their biological parents. As for the reason the kids were placed for adoption? None of your business.

3. “Aren’t you scared that having open adoption will increase the chances of your kids’ biological parents trying to take them back?” No. Our adoptions were ethical and legal. We chose open adoption because we believe it’s mutually beneficial for us, our children, and their biological parents.

4. “What would you do if your kids’ birth parents just rang your doorbell one day?” We’d welcome them warmly, invite them in, pour some wine, and chat. But… thanks for being weird.

5. “Now that you adopted, are you going to try and have your own kids?” My kids are “my own.” Qualifiers aren’t necessary or appreciated.

6. “God bless you for adopting these poor children who needed a good home. They are so lucky you adopted them!” Our kids aren’t charity cases. They came from loving, biological parents who felt they couldn’t parent a child at the time the child was born. We are honored to be our children’s parents, and we are the lucky ones!

7. “Were his birth parents on drugs?” Are you on drugs? Because you are trippin’ if you think I’m going to answer your question.

8. “They are sooooooooooooo cute! What country are they from?” Um, Missouri.

9. “Oh! Well, are they full or mixed?” My kids aren’t a dog breed or a cup of Starbucks. They are people with thoughts and feelings. But thanks for being weird. Again.

10. “Are they all real siblings?” Yes. Do you not see the way they are torturing one another right now? That’s as real as it gets!

Making Room for Baby

newborn-baby-girl Image via Shutterstock

When I found out I was pregnant a few days before my forty-third birthday, I was shocked and thrilled. My daughters were 16 and 11, and I had been longing for another pregnancy since the girls were little.  It took a year and a half to conceive my second child, and although there was no medical explanation, it just didn’t look like it would ever happen again. When the girls were both in elementary school, we decided to open our hearts to a three year old Russian orphan boy whom we adopted. The adjustment to life with that little blond tornado was tough, and it took some time for everyone to settle in.

It was shortly after Viktor’s eighth birthday that the surprisingly wonderful news of my last pregnancy came.  All of us were beside ourselves with excitement and awe…all of us except my son. While some of us had tears of joy, he had tears of sadness and fear. My husband and I assured him of our love and his importance in our family, especially for the baby-to-be who would look up to him. But even after five years with us, my son felt his place in the family was so tenuous that this little intruder would surely threaten it.

After a while, Viktor began to accept the idea of a little brother — someone he could mold into a little version of himself and someone to even the numbers in the family.  That was until he found out I was pregnant with another little girl. The reaction to that news was even stronger than to the pregnancy itself.  He isolated himself outside and sobbed angrily. All I could do was remind him about his best friend at the time, a girl, who liked all the same things he did — army, cars, physical play. I’m not sure he bought my attempt at consolation. While the rest of the family enjoyed every aspect of planning and waiting for our new miracle,  my son seemed in denial.

Then Claire was born. She was so tiny and helpless, and Viktor immediately fell hard. He held her so gently, studied her features, and mimicked how my husband let her sleep on his chest. He showed her off and talked about her to his teacher and classmates. During one of the first days home, while I was changing the crying infant,  Viktor gently said to her, “You know what is really sad?  When I was a baby like you, nobody took care of me like this”. He said it tenderly, as though he was just realizing for himself what he missed. It was like he made a vow at that time to never let her feel the neglect he did.

He began to see me differently, too. He got to see me parent from the beginning of life, there for all of Claire’s basic needs 24/7. During one of my first nights home from the hospital, he wanted to sleep near the baby and me to hear my “sweet voice” and see Claire’s “cute little face”. He was truly drinking in what I wasn’t there for when he was a baby.

Until the baby’s birth, I think Viktor always sort of felt like a latecomer to our family. He knew he missed out on our first family home and many of our combined experiences as well as his own first three years of being a baby in our midst. But as relates to Claire, he was there from the start—from finding out about her to every day of her life since then. She doesn’t know life without him, and she doesn’t know that he is anyone other than her brother.

As Claire entered toddlerhood, the brother-sister relationship developed into something more typical. She annoys him, he teases her, and they get mad at each other. She still looks up to him and wants him to play with her, and of course he still loves her, but they definitely get on each other’s nerves. The gifts of this relationship, however, are still being realized. Viktor had hyperactivity and sensory issues as a little boy that felt so different to me. He never seemed to sleep, and although she is not biologically related to him, Claire also has these issues, in some ways even more significantly. Her brother prepared me to deal with OT services, extreme fatigue, and acceptance of traits I don’t relate to.  And now that a child I gave birth to has some of the same difficulties, Viktor’s characteristics don’t feel so foreign to me; he doesn’t feel foreign to me. I see that I absolutely could have given birth to a child like him, because I did.

It is interesting how things work out sometimes. A little boy came into our family’s life and there were lessons on both sides, and then a little girl came along and somehow made those lessons easier for all of us. It’s one love story among many in the chapters of our life as a family.

Related post: Sibling Bonding: Setting Them Up for Success

Special Needs Adoption: Limb Differences



When my husband and I first considered China adoption we were told we’d wait roughly six years for a child. It seemed our journey was over before it started, but our adoption agency suggested the special needs program (shorter wait). I had two things to say about that: Hell and no.

I was intimidated by “special needs”. Special needs were something you handled if those were the cards you were dealt. You know, the whole “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle” perspective. I knew there were people who raised their hands to parent special needs kids…I didn’t think we were those people. But before we ran screaming from the room, we took the time to learn what we were turning down.

The conditions listed under the umbrella of China special needs adoption program range from pretty much nothing, like a missing thumb to more complex conditions, like Spina Bifida. Families choose what medical needs they were comfortable parenting. We did research, took deep breaths and jumped in the deep end of special needs adoption.

It’s hard to get our heads around the fact that certain cultures classify minor imperfections as special needs. I don’t say that to spark a discussion on how lousy the Chinese are for this line of thinking, because I don’t see it like that. I tell you because it might change your thinking about whether a special needs adoption fits your family.

Early in our “paper pregnancy”, we got a list of different needs and conditions. We had to check boxes to indicate if we’d be open to certain issues. Listed was “limb differences”. Having no clue what that meant I summoned my private physician, Dr. Google. I learned: …congenital (born with) absence or malformation of limbs. May result from injury or disease requiring amputation. The causes of congenital limb differences are frequently unknown…I thought “we could handle that” and checked the box. A few weeks later, I was staring at a picture of a seventeen month-old boy whose special need was “congenital hand abnormality”. I fell hard for this kid in the picture.

And here I am. So, what’s life with a limb difference kid like?

My son is four now. He’s missing his right hand (he has a stub and four finger nubs). “Get down!” and “don’t touch!” fly out of my mouth about sixty-trillion times a day. No different from any other mom of a small terror I mean boy, hmm?

He can climb a ladder, catch a ball, and open anything he’s generally not supposed to have. He can put the smack down on his brother, snatch toys from other kids and dangle them enticingly out of reach till the other kid cries (I’m so proud). He most recently got in trouble for swiping my Kindle, slathering it with body lotion and pretending it was a baby. I have used many adjectives to describe my boy terror (some have four letters). Handicapped was never one of those words.

My son is growing up adapting his environment to his anatomy. Buttons and shoelaces are challenging, but he’s mastered pushups at the tender age of four. I have zero doubts that my little fireball will conquer he sets his sights on.

The hardest thing about parenting a limb difference kid is managing my reactions to people’s stares or comments. Kids are curious. They want to look, ask “why” or want to know if “it’s an owie” (most adults can figure out it’s a congenital thing). Kids take my explanation of: “this is how he’s made” at face value and press on scaling the jungle gym or trying to take back whatever toy my little grabber just swiped from them (sigh, we’re working on that).

Occasionally, we’ll get rude or ignorant. A boy of about seven screamed “OMG did you SEE that kid’s hand” at a volume probably heard in the next county. A woman on the bus acted as if she’d seen Sasquatch and remarked audibly “how gross” to no one in particular. It’s hard to be chill and not give these people the verbal smack down (or trip them and pretend it’s an accident). Even though my instinct is to rush to my kid’s defense when someone says something tacky, I don’t do it. If I police every dumb comment, my little boy won’t learn his way in a world where people are sometimes just assholes.

People are going to notice his anatomy is a little different. He’ll have to learn his own way of handling comments, especially ugly ones. We all want life to be easy for our kids and sometimes it’s hard to see him standing out when he’d rather fit in. My son’s limb difference isn’t always the first thing people notice, but eventually, they notice. Reactions range from no reaction at all to friendly curiosity. Mean has been a rarity. I haven’t seen anyone tease him yet, but I’m sure that day will come, probably when I’m not there to witness it (kids are sneaky like that, ya know).

There is no “cure” for limb differences. Maybe someday there will be technology to grow a hand in a lab but we’re not there yet. I can’t name one thing he can’t do that would be enhanced by a prosthesis so we’re holding off until he’s older to decide on that. A cosmetic semi-functional “slip on hand” that looks and feels real (in kind of a scary way) will be an option when he’s bigger. We are leaving the decisions in his court.

He refers to his little hand as…well, his little hand. Right now, he’s happy to show you if you want to look. “It’s just my little hand” he’ll tell you and then moves on to telling you he likes your pretty dress and asking if you have candy in your purse. He’s kind of a player like that. We sometimes call it his “lucky fin” like Nemo. This is how I sometimes explain his limb difference to children. I’m happy Disney came up with a more relatable limb difference role model because otherwise, we’d be stuck with Captain Hook and everyone thinks he’s sort of a douche.

Related post: The Beauty of Imperfection 

We Are A Very Real Family, Thank You Very Much

hand-on-skin Image via La Jolie Vie Photography

My family is no stranger to questions, stares, and assuming statements. Since my husband and I became parents five-and-a-half-years ago, we’ve pretty much heard it all.

“Are they all yours?”

“I cannot imagine giving my baby away.”

“Are you the nanny?”

“Isn’t adoption really expensive?”

“What country are they from?”

“Why didn’t you adopt white kids?”

“Aren’t a lot of adopted kids, you know, pretty messed up?”

“Doesn’t open adoption confuse your children?”

“OH! What a wonderful thing you did adopting children who needed good homes.”

“Are they foster kids?”

“Aren’t you afraid their birth parents will try to take them back?”

We’ve had plenty of practice responding to the slew of statements and questions we encounter. There is rarely a day that goes by when we aren’t approached to answer a question about adoption.

Some believe we’ve signed up for being adoption educators. After all, we chose this path to parenthood, and our status as an adoptive family is apparent. We are white, and all three of our kids are black. We have become more outgoing, patient, and strong, with each passing year. The questions that are asked of us are our normal. We know how to respond with education, grace, and honesty, all while protecting our children’s privacy.

But there is one question that never fails to get under my skin, causing my chest to tighten, and my face to flush.

“Are they real siblings?”

Imagine you are in a store with your family, and the person in front of you in the checkout line turns to observe the restless children (with their incessant touching/bouncing/bumping/giggling/shrieking). After a quick glance over the children, and the sweaty mother trying to contain them while simultaneously grabbing all the candy bars her toddler has nabbed, the person asks, “Are they real siblings?”

It’s not what you would expect. Nor is it what you want to hear, with your cart heaped with haphazardly stacked groceries and diapers and feminine products and clearance clothing. With your energetic little ones. With your coupon binder spilling open and your wallet missing, only to discover, oh yes, the baby is playing with it, sprinkling your credit cards and coins around like birthday confetti.

Why do you not expect it? Because you are just a normal parent, trying to insure your kids remain safe and happy and healthy. Because you are at the store trying to pick up food and clothing and personal hygiene products—like normal people do.

And because, above all, your children are standing right there, and they have a right to respect and to
just be kids. They aren’t adoption’s poster children for you to interrogate.

Think for a moment about the people you love. Really love. Your best friend. Your partner or spouse. Your parents. Your sister’s step-son. Your godchildren. Your grandmotherly neighbor who is always looking out for you. Your favorite childhood teacher or coach. These are the people who have invested in your life, who have been with you in good times and in bad, who know your idiosyncrasies and love you like crazy anyway.

Many of these individuals aren’t your biological relatives. But your love for them runs deep and true.

There are countless times I’ve been asked the “real” question. It comes in many forms. I understand the person is substituting the word “real” for “biological,” and as an adult, I know what you mean. But please think about the innocent, beautiful little humans standing beside me. The word “real” is confusing, intrusive, and hurtful.

My kids act like any other children who are in the same family. They pull each other’s hair, give one another hugs, steal toys from the hands of the other, share an evening bath, join hands and play endless games of Ring Around the Rosie. They argue, they reconcile, and then argue again. They play, dance all kinds of silly when their favorite song comes on, and they nurture one another.

My kids are real people. With thoughts and feelings. Newsflash: They can hear you when you pepper us, the parents, with questions about our family’s authenticity.

Our love is real.

Our family is real.

It’s all real.

The next time you see a family at the store, at the park, in a restaurant, at the library, standing next to you on the subway, and the family looks like they may not be biologically related or they may have joined together through the process of adoption, it’s perfectly fine to smile. But please keep the word “real” to yourself.

Or as my mama taught me, just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it aloud.

Related post: A Child of My Own