Seventeen years ago, I traveled to Moscow to bring home my 2-year-old baby girl. My colleagues said to me, “How altruistic of you. You are saving a life.”
My neighbors crowed about my generosity, my willingness to sacrifice. “You could be spending your money on a vacation in Tahiti.”
I wanted to scream, “No, no, no, no, no. This is for me.” I wasn’t even thinking about a toddler in the orphanage who, if not adopted, would be discharged to the streets at age 16 to a probable life of crime. After one divorce and several unsuccessful relationships, I had reached that time in my life when I had to take control. I wanted to be a mom. It was as simple as that.
I thought hard about various ways to make it happen. Pregnancy was risky because of my age and breast cancer history. I was told domestic adoptions could take years. Since my grandmother had come from Russia as a young girl, I felt a connection there. It was my heritage, my family. I got busy.
Confession No. 1
I almost backed out at the last minute. There I was, alone in a hotel room in Moscow with cockroaches running down the cracked walls. The legal adoption hearing was scheduled early the next morning. My interpreter would accompany me. The head of the adoption agency warned, “If you change your mind, do it before the hearing, not after.” My stomach twisted inside.
I had visited my soon-to-be daughter at the orphanage that afternoon and felt nothing. In fact, I thought she was the wrong child. “That’s not the adorable toddler I saw on the video,” I said to the interpreter. “Please check.” But it was. My girl ran from me and threw the beanie baby I had brought for her hard on the floor.
Confession No. 2
The adoption hearing was surreal. I felt disconnected from my body, as if I watched myself from a distance. Afterward, when I retrieved my girl from the orphanage, she sobbed when the Russian caregiver handed her to me. And I handed her back! When I retell the story, I say I gave her back so that the large, beefy woman with the kind eyes could comfort her some more, but the truth is, I think, in that instant, I wanted to give her back. I think that was my instinctive reaction. I was scared to death and asked myself, What have I done?
Confession No. 3
The early years were challenging: lots of tantrums, long, loud intense tantrums, especially in the car. I was lucky to find a daycare in the same building as my office, and after three months of spending every day with her, I needed to go back to work. She screamed all the way there and all the way home. But there were also moments of pure joy. Her curiosity was boundless: “Look at the birdies, Mama.” “Look at the sky.” “Look at all the colors.”
Then adolescence exploded with her attachment issues raging full force. Risky behaviors followed: leaving school without permission, staying out all night, lots and lots of swearing at me solidified the need for lots and lots of therapy. Still, my friends asked, “You’re not sorry you did this, are you? You’d do it all over again, wouldn’t you?”
“Hmmm,” I contemplated, knowing I sometimes harbored thoughts of, “What the fuck have I done?”
Despite my dark feelings, and maybe all parents have them from time to time, whether adoptive or biological, one final thing I will confess: My girl has opened up my heart in a way that no boyfriend, husband or best girlfriend could ever do.
She recently turned 19. Things are calmer now. She’s calmer. But she’s unlike me in so many ways. I’m a voracious reader; she’d rather go to the dentist than pick up a book. Exercise is part of my lifestyle; she complains about walking her dog. I suspect all parents have expectations for their children, wishes and fantasies of who they will become. I know I did. We beam when we see ourselves in them.
But when our children don’t meet our expectations, when they’re not like us in ways that we had hoped, what do we do? After all, we’ve passed the point when we can give them back. So we love them anyway. We love and accept them for who they are. Maybe that’s the meaning of unconditional love.