Four years ago, my husband and I climbed a slippery marble staircase in an orphanage in Ethiopia. At the top of the stairs, in a small room lined with cribs full of babies, we met our two adopted children: a shell-shocked infant boy, and his smiley three-year old sister. It had been a long road to parenthood for us. We were married in the fall of 1999 and decided to start a family right away. One full decade later, after numerous infertility treatments, four pregnancies, four miscarriages, foster parent training, and a bout of thyroid cancer, we finally became parents. I am finally a mother.
During that momentous meeting, our son Melese’s eyes grew gigantic as he tried to figure out why these strangers were smiling at him. Our daughter, Meazi, plopped into my lap and promptly slipped my beaded bracelet off of my wrist onto hers. Her breath smelled like pancakes. Her eyes were very sparkly, so sparkly in fact that I actually took her to the doctor as soon as we got home to Los Angeles. “She just has really pretty eyes,” said the bemused optometrist. “Nothing to worry about.” It wasn’t the only time a doctor looked at me while wondering how a woman of such an advanced age could be so clueless about children, just the first.
I adopted for selfish reasons. I wanted to be a mother. Initially, the idea of international adoption was attractive to me because it meant that these children would belong only to me. I wouldn’t have to share them. Early on, my thoughts about this changed. The adoption process has a very steep learning curve. Our children have two countries and two families. I realized, after meeting their birth father, that the one thing that would help my children the most would be maintaining a relationship with him and their other surviving birth relatives. We now have an open Ethiopian adoption, (as open as it can be between two families that live 9,000 miles away from each other). We exchange pictures, videos, drawings, and letters. We plan on visiting when Melese is a little older.
We stumble along as best we can, trying to help our children grow and thrive despite these difficult circumstances. Most days we succeed; our kids are happy. They have an amazing group of friends who have families and origins just like theirs. They attend wonderful schools. They eat ice cream and take violin lessons. They swim in the ocean and hike in the woods. On some days though, they wonder when they will get to go home to Ethiopia. They wonder how a person who loved them could give them away. They kiss a picture from Ethiopia. They cry and say that they don’t fit in anywhere. On these days their sadness crushes me.
A year after we came home from Ethiopia, a judge in Santa Monica, California raised his right hand and said, “With this pen I make you a family.” I nearly snorted at him. How presumptuous of him to assume that he had anything to do with our becoming a family. Our first year together was extremely difficult. Our children grieved and grieved. My husband and I fought and fought. Our daughter couldn’t speak English and our son couldn’t make eye contact with us. It was a heartbreaking time. As our histories weave together, as we share more and more experiences as a gang of four, we become much stronger and more secure as a family. We love each other very much. We are a tight unit. There is joy.
Climbing those orphanage stairs four years ago is an experience that I will never forget. It was the day that I got everything that I ever wanted. Unfortunately, adoption always starts with a loss. My children lost everything that day. They were traumatized and terrified.
Raising Meazi and Melese has been a great privilege, and one that I do not take for granted. They are remarkable little people, bright, loving, kind, beautiful and hilarious. They have taught me about resiliency and strength. They have shown me what real grief looks like. They have taught me what it really means to experience happiness. I wanted these children so much and now I want so much for these children. They have taught me how to be a mother. Together we have become a family.