Mothering an adopted child may be the greatest life challenge you’ll ever face, or should I say the greatest dance you’ll ever dance? Your child may be a newborn, a toddler, a teen, or an adult. No matter your child’s age or stage, you’re convinced that homecoming day will be epic. You’ve already determined what your first dance step will be–love. Fierce love, like that of a mama bear protecting her cubs.Now, envision the dynamics of your child’s adoption as a large wooden dance floor, waxed and buffed to perfection. Some adoption dynamics you’ll know prior to homecoming day, and others you’ll learn later when you comprehend that adoption is a lifelong journey, filled with twists and turns.
Retha, my Mom through adoption, knew many dynamics prior to my homecoming. It would be a closed, private adoption, facilitated by her mother-in-law, Leah, who was the matron of the county Children’s Home, (aka) orphanage. It was here that bruised and broken children, teens, and adults found respite during life’s storms. It would be here also, that I would be prepared for my life’s work with those touched by adoption. Every night, Leah served up a hearty dinner around her huge dining room table and how I loved the unspoken camaraderie with the children who’d also lost family.
Leah knew that Retha and son Mike would be outstanding parents. Retha was a beautiful woman, with dark shiny hair and a winsome smile. Every area of her life–whether studying to become the valedictorian of her college’s class or teaching elementary school children- she exuded rare self-confidence. When she and Mike fell in love, they dreamed of having children well into their forties. Unfortunately, infertility won. And, because they lived during the age of romanticism, even Leah didn’t recognize the resulting secret sorrows they’d carry and the profound need to grieve before adopting.
On August 4, 1945, after delivery, my First Mother, Elizabeth, was whisked off without knowledge of my gender or seeing my face. I believe she did this to save her marriage because her husband, away in the War, wasn’t her baby’s father. I was placed in an incubator for ten days, with little human touch, and was named “Baby X.” I cried long and hard for human touch, but no one came. I gave up and went within. As a result, I refused to eat and nurses listed my condition as “failure-to-thrive.” Retha was a trooper, though, especially when she learned of my suffering. Even though I was extremely small and would need ten days in an incubator before homecoming, she pressed on like any good mom does when her kids are hurting. When Leah came to get me from the hospital, she paid the bill in full–$55.97. Then, she drove the tree-lined street to Retha and Mike’s modest bungalow, where they waited with great anticipation. When Leah carried all five pounds of me into my parent’s modest bungalow, they came running, for this was the day that their dreams would come true. When Leah handed me to Mike, his hands shook, like he was holding a delicate piece of fine china and then he said, “She’s so tiny. I can hold her in the palm of one hand.” Mike recounted this memory until his dying day and whenever he told it, a sense of belonging took root in my adoptee heart.
When Mike handed me to Retha, I arched my tiny back and screamed bloody murder. Whenever a baby arches like this, it means she’s in extreme pain. This was my “cry print” to Retha. Just like a fingerprint notarizes a unique identity, cry prints communicate personal needs. My cry print was, “I lost my mama. Where is she? I’m going to die without her.”
Who can even imagine how Retha felt? Perhaps, like a bucket of ice water had been thrown on her? She must have shaken in shock, like we all do when something unfathomable happens. It would be easy for her to read rejection into my screams. “Maybe my baby doesn’t like me, or maybe I’m not suited to be this baby’s Mom. If I were, Sherrie would have snuggled into my welcoming arms immediately.” Perhaps, Retha could have put me back into my grandmother’s arms and spoken comforting words, like, “I know you miss your First Mother. I am sad about that, too. But, I’m here for you now and I’ll never, ever, leave you. I will love you forever.”