In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is running a special series called 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
-Kahlil Gibran, “On Children”
It started as a cavalier thought, “it” being the entry of children into our lives. Cavalier, indeed. How naïve and foolish we were, my husband Dyl and I.
In early 2002, our flourishing careers and fulfilling lives were topped off by my “pregnancy-on-command.” It seemed as if a casual curiosity about children got me pregnant, unexpectedly easily, reinforcing a notion that we could sail through parenting as we had everything else in our marriage partnership.
And then, just as unexpectedly, 21 weeks into my pregnancy, our little boy died. No explanation, no reason, his heart simply stopped beating. Ironically, that stilled heartbeat triggered my mother instinct. I grieved and grieved and grieved the loss of my son and I was wracked with guilt over taking his life for granted.
After many months of licking our wounds, Dyl and I, now actively seeking the elusive joy of parenthood, started trying to conceive again. Several failed attempts and procedures later, a chance conversation with a colleague, Mary, made me aware of our local county-sponsored foster care.
Mary adopted a little girl through foster care after her mother, despite rehabilitation services, could not overcome a heroin addiction. The idea of caring for and loving a child at a time when he or she needed it the most, appealed to me. It took my husband another year to buy into the idea. Mother’s Day 2006 was when we finally began our foster-adopt training.
On August 1, 2007, we brought our first foster child, nine-month-old Nina, into our home. It began with a meeting with Nina’s social worker: “Nina’s mother Rayna is suffering from mental illness,” she explained. “The going thus far has been rough, very rough. I doubt she can make it, but she is early in this journey. Can you take care of Nina and bring her to her mother for regular visits? And, if Rayna is unable to recover, are you willing to adopt Nina? We have explored options for placement within her biological family, but there are none.”
I had had some exposure, through family and friends, to the struggles of mental illness. The medications used to treat it often stop working and have to be changed or dosages adjusted, and the side effects can be terrible. I could see how it might be a long road ahead for Rayna and for us. “Remember what they told us in our classes? Saving one child at a time?” Dyl said as we discussed what to do. “Nina needs us right now.” So, after five minutes, a little anxious about the unknown but never more sure, our answer to the social worker was: Yes.
When we brought beautiful, alert little Nina home, I didn’t realize how amazing it would feel to finally have a baby in my arms. True, we had our first frustrating surprise: diaper packages do not come with instructions and neither one of us knew which side was which!
But we also had a delightful gift, feeling a love so intense that I allowed myself to revel in a fantasy of motherhood as I held her in my arms. That lasted a few minutes, interrupted by the ring of my cell phone: “Hello? Is this J?” said a polite voice, “I am Rayna, Nina’s mother. Is Nina with you?” “Yes,” I said, “We just brought her to our home. You have a beautiful girl.” “Thank you. I am working very hard to get better, and I will get her back.” With that, we discussed a visiting schedule and ended our first conversation.
“Who was that?” my husband asked. “Nina’s mother Rayna,” I replied. “And???” “It was fine. She seemed nice,” I said. Actually, she sounded very nice. I did not enjoy a very real Rayna shattering my “mother fantasy.” In fact, I realized I subconsciously had hoped not to like her. Well, I was forced to admit quite the opposite after that first phone conversation.
The first time we took Nina to visit her mother, we liked her even more. I had a stereotypical vision of what someone who had her baby taken into state custody would look like – unkempt, indifferent. Instead we saw a gentle, respectful and well-dressed woman. Rayna did absolutely everything that was asked of her in her rehabilitation program – and she was prompt, down to the second, for every single visit with Nina. A few weeks into the visits, Rayna asked that we arrange visits with Nina’s half-siblings as well. And so we did.
As the months went by, I surprised myself by looking forward to the regular meetings with Rayna. I was eager to share updates with her, new Nina stories, laugh about some silly thing Nina had done, gush together with amazement over each new developmental milestone. Before each visit, I would hope that Rayna got to experience some of the milestone moments during her time with Nina. Once, Rayna said to me, “You know in all this time, I have not had a chance to change a poopy diaper. Funny, some of the things you miss when your daughter is not with you.” I tried to set up Nina’s feeding schedule so we could time a “poop” to coincide with a visit. As I recall, with the often constipated Ms. Nina, I was not successful at accomplishing that!
But I was also torn. I was rooting for Rayna, yet I was growing so attached to Nina – little Nina, the first child we got to hold and love, the child who came to us during peak bonding months in her life and who bonded so closely with us. During these months, my mother paid us a visit and laid out two skirts on the bed. “One for you and one for Rayna,” she said. “For Rayna?” I asked. “She seems like part of our family now,” she replied. And so I wrapped the skirt, beautifully, and handed the package rather awkwardly to Rayna on our next “Nina visit.” I was uncomfortable thinking of Rayna as family, even though my mother had used that word to describe her. I had grown fond of Rayna, no doubt, but she also had the daughter I desired: Nina, whom I had grown to love so much. “A gift? For me?” said a delighted Rayna. “Yes, it’s from my mother,” I replied, feeling guilty about not sharing in her happiness. “Thank you,” she said as she opened the package and gave me a close, strong hug.
Later, as Rayna continued to make progress and I no longer could deny the closeness and empathy I felt toward her (at this point I readily could see how much she wanted her life and her precious daughter back), I hesitated only for a moment before handing her a well-written article I had found about step-by-step pointers on how to reunify with your child.
The months of Rayna’s progress were paralleled by Nina’s increasing affection toward her mother. Within a few weeks, she was smiling whenever we went to visit Rayna. A few months later, at the end of a visit and as Rayna and I talked pleasantries for a while before Nina and I headed back to my house, Nina went back and forth between our arms, the entire time. Clearly she enjoyed the game, but it also was clear that she loved us both and was sending us that message: you both are special to me! Later, as we drove off, I saw little Nina craning her neck, desperate to catch every last glimpse of her mother standing, waving outside the rehab center, before she disappeared from sight.
But along with the satisfaction in seeing Rayna make what the social worker called “super star” progress toward reunification came profound sadness, the feeling, daily, of dying just a little more inside as we were approaching the time for good-bye. “Love her like a daughter,” the social worker had said to us, “It is the only way she will develop those feelings of attachment that she can transfer to her mother if reunification is successful.” And we did – we showered love on her, we loved her like a daughter, we couldn’t have loved her more. There were days when the emotional tumult in my heart seemed unbearable. I remember telling my husband one evening, “I am going for a walk. We lost our son, now we are about to lose this child who is like a daughter to us. I cannot handle seeing Nina right now, it is hurting me, terribly.” Another evening I called my parents and cried, “I cannot do this, I cannot do this.” “Remember, honey, your sorrow is Rayna’s happiness. Think of that,” my mother said. But that is not what I wanted to hear from my mother, not when all I wanted to do was scoop Nina up into my arms and run away, run away to a place where Rayna could not find us and take her back. “I am your daughter, Mom,” I said. “Let me be selfish and feel my sorrow with me, right now, if only for a little while.”
Throughout this process, Rayna was strong, determined and motivated by her love of Nina, easy to get along with. And, through all my sorrow, I had to admit, easy to love. Yes, Rayna was easy to love, yet there was a dent in the form of Wayne, a man Rayna met during rehab. We heard through various sources that Wayne might be bad news, and a simple search confirmed our fears: Wayne was a dangerous felon, a man with a history of gravely injuring and terrorizing people, including past girlfriends. As foster parents who also happened to be the de facto parents of Nina by now, our duty was two-fold: help Rayna with her reunification efforts, and advocate in the best interests of Nina. With that in mind, my husband and I expressed strong concerns about Wayne possibly coming in contact with Nina, were reunification to occur.
Our concerns were mostly written off as attempts to keep Nina to ourselves. “Rayna is allowed to date whomever she wants,” a social worker screamed at us, “How dare you be so judgmental?” Nobody was interested in seeing Wayne’s frighteningly violent record except, thankfully, Rayna’s attorney, her zealous advocate whom I admired. The attorney warned Rayna about Wayne’s history; she asked her to break up with him or risk losing Nina. As we expected, Rayna did break up with Wayne when she heard the details - and we were relieved. Despite a subsequent really bad experience with Wayne (luckily, Nina was not with her when it happened), Rayna didn’t miss a beat in her sprint toward the last steps in her rehabilitation….and then it was time for Nina to be returned to her, on sixty day probation. If the probationary period went off successfully, Nina would be back with Rayna forever.
August 22, 2008: a hard day for our family, a day of joy for Rayna. Nina was distressed, so distressed, when she saw all her belongings in luggage and boxes (I packed them late the previous night, while she slept, because my earlier attempt was so traumatic to her). Dropping Nina off at a county center that morning was heart-wrenching. This child whom we loved with all our hearts, we so hoped to entrust directly to her mother, Rayna, with whom we had built a good relationship over the past thirteen months. Yet the social worker said they could not permit this and risk drama. When we arrived at the center, we were told to leave Nina in the playroom, all by herself, and depart. Rayna would come by later to pick her up. I will never forget Nina sitting by the wall, patting the space next to her and saying to me, “It, Mama, It.” (she could not say S’s back then, so “Sit” became “It”). I held her very, very close, hoping that the lifetime of love within me would work its way into her little body. “I love you, Nina,” I said fiercely. “I will always love you, OK?” “Be happy, Stay happy,” said Dyl as he followed with a hug for the daughter of his heart. As we headed toward our truck, our empty truck devoid of Nina’s things, we held each other and cried – huge, broken sobs, mourning the loss in our lives.
Two days later, Rayna called. “How are you doing?” she asked. “Well,” I said, feeling far from it. “And you? And Nina?” I asked, my empty arms aching as I imagined reaching out over the phone and holding Nina close. “We are well, but Nina misses you sometimes. Yesterday she was looking at the money in the change purse you gave her and she cried for her Dada.” “Yes, Dyl used to look at the coins with her and teach her the different denominations,” I said. “Thank you both - for everything.” “You are welcome, Rayna, we are proud of you. Do you think – maybe – we could stay in touch?” “Of course,” said Rayna, generously. “I definitely plan to stay in touch.”
Rayna’s kindness in permitting us to see dear Nina, even as she was just getting adjusted to parenting Nina again, was not lost on us. What a treat it was to see Nina, to hold her, to assure ourselves that mother and daughter were doing well! Of course every time we said good-bye, it felt like leaving behind a part of ourselves. Still, overall, it was a time of great satisfaction at seeing mother and daughter together again.
And then, about a month into the sixty day probation, Rayna called one evening to tell me she no longer could stay in contact with us. Her attorney reminded her about the “Wayne” incident and told Rayna she could not risk us finding a way to take Nina from her. I pleaded and tried to assure her that was the farthest thought from our minds. Wayne was gone and Rayna was a confident, good mother. Rayna sounded sad as she replied, “I am so sorry. Please don’t call us anymore.” Utterly devastated and sobbing, I told Dyl, the yin to my yang, who always could see beyond a raw emotional response. “Honey,” he said, “You can’t take this personally. Think about how vulnerable Rayna feels right now, having just reunited with her daughter. And as a lawyer, surely you understand that Rayna’s lawyer has to tell her to watch out against possible problems?” My brain understood what he was saying, and I was definitely not angry with Rayna, but my heart would not stop feeling sad. I desperately missed seeing Nina, I sank into depression and I needed counseling. Thanks to an excellent counselor, I was able to arrive at a peaceful state of being. Every morning, I prayed that Rayna and her daughter Nina were safe - then was able, somehow, to go about my day.
Thanksgiving Day, 2008: I was shaking with excitement as my cell phone rang and I saw Rayna’s phone number flash across my screen. After exchanging greetings, me trying to sound as casual as possible, Rayna mouthed the most selfless words I have heard in my life: “Nina is asking about you. Maybe we could meet at a park or something?”
That was four years ago. Since then, our families have become even more intertwined – and grown to include Lenny, our foster son whom we adopted when his biological parents were unable to conquer their demons of addiction and crime. Nina and Lenny, whose enigmatic, telepathic love has Dyl and I in awe of how life brings together people, of the instruments we have been in bringing two beautiful souls together, of the privilege we enjoy in being able to love and guide two children into the future. Nina and Lenny….a story for another day.
As I reflect on our continuing story, I think of Rayna, whose selflessness has allowed it to be so. After that initial hesitancy, Rayna never wavered in sharing Nina with us, not even during the early days when Nina would cry that she wanted to be with us, only us. Rayna, whose tenacious love and successful reunification is an inspiration in many ways, now has a daughter who loves and visits us, yet always wants to go back. “Remember how, when I was little, I would jump into your arms and wrap my arms and legs around you really tight and hold you very close? I do that to my Mommy now,” Nina said to me the other day, a bittersweet revelation that tells me all is as it should be.
I will sign off on this very long blog post with my memories of Nina’s most recent visit, just a few days ago. We had read five stories at the library and it was time to take her home. Walking across the parking lot, Nina said, “J, can you sing the Nina song?” “Not right now, honey, my voice is tired.” “Oh please, please, I LOVE the Nina song!!” “Oh alright,” I say as I sing to the tune of “Luella” (apologies for not being able to source this):
“Oh Nina, Oh Nina, our lovely girl Nina
Please know that this family loves you
Some day you’ll go to your Mommy
And all of her dreams will come true
But if you could come back to visit
Then you will make us happy too!
Oh Nina, Oh Nina, our lovely girl Nina
Please know that this family loves you
“Always and forever, my darling….always and forever,” I think as I look at the smiling Nina in my rearview mirror and drive her back home for a joyous reunion with her mother.
Jiyer is a lawyer who lives and works in San Diego, California. She and her husband consider themselves extremely fortunate to be loved by Nina, who seeded their journey that resulted in the adoption of a family.
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Portrait of an Adoption is hosted by Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. This year’s adoption series is full, but if you have a story you would like to submit as a candidate for next year’s series, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed under: 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, adopting after loss, adoption agency, attachment in adoption, birthmother grief, domestic adoption, foster care, mother-child bond, open adoption, pregnancy loss